As I live here in the Middle Kingdom I have always been asked about my ability to speak Chinese.   I am one of those people who like words, and languages; so I put a lot of energy on learning as many languages as I can.    I currently speak Spanish, understand a little italian, and a little german, and now I am trying  to conquer Chinese.. one little character at a time.

When I started to study Chinese I thought my head was going to explode.  It really didn’t look like anything but pretty pictures to me and just sounded like they were making up sounds as they went along.   I didn’t think I was ever going to understand or even make sense of any of any of it.  When I was learning Spanish, it was so close to English that I could figure it out… but Chinese being a tonal language, I was lost.

My first attempt at learning Chinese was when I was in the states.   I listened to cd-roms, read books and played cool chinese computer learning games.   However, it didn’t seem to help me.   I then took a class at a community college and realized that those tools I used before actually did help me a little… because I found myself being on of the top students in the class.

I was then bitten by the language bug… and I asked my then professor to tutor me on a personal basis.  She agreed and that began my 6 months of personal chinese tutoring.   Even after all that , I still felt that I was not able to say more than just your basic “Ni Hao?” (How are you?) and “Wo Ai Ni” (I love you).

Little did I know that I had actually learned the basics and it was imbedded in my mind, even though I did not know it yet.

By the time I got to China, I felt I had wasted hours and money trying to learn this language because I did not understand anything.   I really could not go around town telling everyone that I loved them.   I was frustrated and angry about the whole situation.

Now after I have been in China, going on my third year, I have realized that I actually have learned something.    I can understand people!   The first time I realized this was when I went shopping and the little shop keeper asked me if I liked a shirt… I actually understood what she said.  So, much so that I thought she had asked me in English. But, when I answered her in English she looked confused.  When I answered in my Chinese and she actually understood me I know that all that hard work was actually paying off.

After that I started trying my hand at several other people, like the taxi driver, the waitress, the security guard and even my husband.  They were all understanding me… and in the office the Chinese teachers would talk among themselves in Chinese and I understood them.

Some how, some way… I had actually learned Chinese.  I couldn’t believe it.  Still can’t.   I am not fluent and I still can only read a very few characters.  But, I could actually hold a conversation and people will know what I am talking about.

I was feeling really proud of myself one day when I went shopping with one of the new foreign teachers.   I was bargaining and chatting like a pro in Chinese.   Then I happen up on a woman and her daughter.   They were talking to me about English classes, however, I was having trouble understanding them.  I had been working on my Chinese and I could not figure out why I could only understand bits and pieces.    Was my age catching up with me?  Was I losing my mind?  Why couldn’t I understand this woman.    I did the best I could with her and got her to come to the school.

Later when I saw her at the school, she was again talking to me and I was having trouble with her words.  Finally, after she left I asked one of the other Chinese teachers why did I have trouble understanding her?  He told me …. she was speaking local dialect.

I fell stupid… I did not realize that I had not been hearing the correct dialect.  So, that explains a lot.

Now, I have figured out that not only do I have to learn Chinese, I need to figure out the different dialects.  Awww Great….it never ends.

My advice for those of you trying to learn a language.  Study as much as  you can and pursue as many avenues as you can to learn.  However, the best way is to go to the country you are interested in and get down and dirty with the locals.

until next time…